Most popular, long-running bands have fan bases that age along with their music.
The opposite could be said about Ozomatli, who recently released a critically successful children’s album, Ozokidz, filled with catchy songs like “Moose on the Loose” and (take note Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta organizers) the bilingual “Balloon Fest.”
Ozomatli’s new focus on their littlest fans is a natural progression for the Grammy-winning musicians who, over the last 18 years, have spread their signature blend of salsa and hip-hop to people all around the world.
“I think responsibility is the new cool,” drummer Jiro Yamaguchi said in a January NPR interview.
In a more recent interview with SFR, Yamaguchi elaborated on the statement. Specifically, he spoke to how the band’s history of social activism also fits into that elusive category of cool responsibility: “We’ve always been involved in the community and different issues; whether it’s war or HIV or women’s issues or immigrant issues, we’ve always voiced our thoughts.”
Few bands have such an established history of using music to express their social concerns, both at home and abroad. Ozomatli is hugely popular in their native Los Angeles, a city whose multiculturalism and multilingualism reflects their own (the mayor celebrated the band’s 15th anniversary with a city-wide “Ozomatli Day”). In 2006, their voice was amplified globally, when the Ozo gang traveled around the globe as official US State Department cultural ambassadors.
“We got to see parts of the world that [Western] bands don’t really get to go see, like Nepal and Jordan and Tunisia,” Yamaguchi recounts with enthusiasm. “We would make a point of seeking out musicians wherever we were. We would jam out and invite them to come play with us at the show, so we had all kinds of musicians from everywhere up on stage with us.”
In addition to touring, the band did plenty of outreach along the way, Yamaguchi says. “[We’d] spend our days going to orphanages and different kinds of places for kids, schools, you know, and interacting with local people,” he explains.
The band’s outreach to children might have planted the seed for Ozokidz. But as with their music, Ozomatli’s outreach was not limited to any one demographic—the most memorable ambassadorial visit, in the drummer’s opinion, took place in a Myanmar clinic.
“We went to an institution for people with handicaps, [and] there was a group of blind musicians called Blind Reality,” he remembers. “They were really jamming out. They played John Fogerty, and it was a really bizarre experience, hearing American music in that setting and that country.”
As former cultural ambassadors, Ozomatli is a perfect fit for this year’s Artists for Positive Social Change series at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The series, with its theme of art as a means of political activism, has already brought in street and graphic artist Shepard Fairey [Arts Valve, Feb. 27: “Giant Among Men”] and Vancouver musician Kate Reid.
And Ozomatli is no stranger to Santa Fe.
Some locals still talk about their 2001 appearance at the now-defunct Paramount, when the band displayed typical energy by playing their way up to the stage from the back of the room, through the frenzied crowd.
Subsequent years saw them at the also-defunct Paolo Soleri Amphitheater with De La Soul, and again with Steel Pulse.
“I’ve always liked Santa Fe. It’s a small town, but for being so small, there are a lot of cultural offerings, compared to others across the country,” Yamaguchi says, setting himself apart from local whiners.
When asked what will be on the setlist, he assures that it won’t be kiddie music.
“We’re making a new record, and we’ve been playing a lot of songs from that. We like to play things live to develop them, so we’ll be playing a bunch of new material as well as mixing in songs from before,” he says.
To develop and promote the children’s record, Ozomatli recently perfected “a pretty intense 30-minute set,” Yamaguchi says. “It’s a whole different thing, playing for kids. Their attention spans aren’t as long as adults, so you really got to captivate them from the beginning.”
Whether the same is true of college kids remains unspoken.
7:30 pm Saturday, April 27. Sold out.
SFUAD, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive, 473-6055